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Cristina Cugliandro’s spin-off adaptation asks pertinent questions

Arts & Entertainment/Theatre by

Montreal-based director Cristina Cugliandro, co-founder of Odd Stumble Theatre,  is staging What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband on Nov. 3 and 4. A part of Imago Theatre’s forthcoming Her Side of the Story: Revision to Resist theatre festival, taking place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5, Cugliandro’s story holds relevance for today.

“As a theatre practitioner I strive to tell stories I believe are important,” Cugliandro said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “If a deep thought or feeling is born, unleashed, or revisited, the work has fulfilled its purpose.”

What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband, written by Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek in 1979, follows Nora Helmer, the female protagonist from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, who leaves her husband at the end of Ibsen’s play, thus starting her long-due search for independence. Cugliandro concedes that she is less pessimistic than Jelinek, but admits that the playwright’s piece asks hard questions about the notion of progress.

“When I read [Jelinek’s] piece, I was struck by how she draws upon Ibsen’s plays,” Cugliandro said. “She brought together many elements […] how the unchallenged capitalist society has morphed our humanity and our beliefs. [Essentially], how easily we are taught to […] absorb ideas about gender and class. The most inspiring feature was […] how [Jelinek] does not apologize for her opinions.”

The cultural mood of the play also piqued Cugliandro’s interest. Set in the so-called ‘flapper era’ of the 1920s, the setting is one of apparent abundance, although the instability leading up to the Great Depression can already be felt. The script sets up a parallel between Nora’s individual experience as a woman who leaves her husband, and  larger economic and racial systems of violence.

“During this time, women’s movements began to gain momentum, but [Jelinek] was uncertain what these would lead to,” Cugliandro said. “She [wants to know] whether [our] ideas about the placement of gender have changed or not. I think that’s an interesting conversation to have. When we look at gender, race, and politics today, we start to realize that [discrimination] is still in place.”

Cugliandro is also moved by the depiction of advertisements in the script, and the advertising industry's role in distributing propaganda both during and in between the two World Wars. According to Cugliandro, the mission of Jelinek’s sequel was to show how economics, sexism, and racism intertwine. Cugliandro, her actors, and her crew worked as a team to centre these themes in the adaptation.

“The idea for taking a text like this [was to talk] to the actors and crew about what the style of the delivery will be,” Cugliandro said. “The Brechtian technique of alienation [to] simply state things, so the audience understands what is being talked about [was also important]. The play is actually full of humour and hilarious moments. For me, it was about finding that balance […] about allowing people to laugh, cry and understand at the same time […] to awaken and provoke thought.”

Cugliandro hopes to convey a message of active and critical thinking to a generally sheltered Western theatre audience.

“I think real change comes from knowledge and anger,” Cugliandro said. “It’s not enough to say [those of us in the Western world] are the lucky ones. We need to find ways to change the society we find ourselves in [….] Hopefully the piece starts a discussion about where we are and how to go forward in the best way we can.”

What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband will show on November 3 & 4 at 8 pm, Centaur Theatre, C1. Tickets are $20, $15 for students/seniors, artists, or by donation at the door.

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